The largest higher education strike in history of 48,000 academic workers across the UC system has entered its fourth week.
Protesters have cited numerous reasons such as rent burden, a lack of sustainable transportation and the need for more child care support as motivating factors for their actions. But at the core of this historic strike are the unions’ allegations of UC’s unfair labor practices, or ULPs.
“The University has (allegedly) committed wide ranging unfair labor practices impacting each of the four respective UAW units,” the official FAQ of UAW 2865, SRU-UAW and UAW 5810 reads. “These unlawful actions, be they bypassing the union, unilateral changes, or failure to provide information, remain uncured and are impacting our ability to achieve necessary change at the bargaining tables with UC.”
Economic strikers can broadly be defined as strikers that have the goal of obtaining an “economic concession” from their employer, like higher wages and better working conditions, according to the National Labor Relations Board, all of which the unions of academic workers seek to achieve.
On the other hand, ULP strikes respond to issues such as failure to engage in good faith bargaining, direct dealing and coercing employees against engaging in protected union activity, all of which have been cited by the unions of academic workers, as well.
But according to Berkeley Law Professor Catherine Fisk, this distinction is only relevant under federal labor law, where ULP strikers receive more protections in that they cannot be permanently replaced whereas economic strikers can be.
However, Fisk noted that since UC workers are state employed, federal labor law does not apply. The law that applies to the ongoing strike is, instead, the California Higher Education Employment Relations Act.
“That distinction doesn’t typically matter for UC employees, as there are a variety of other protections against termination,” Fisk said in an email. “Plus, as a practical matter, the UC isn’t about to fire faculty and graduate students and postdocs for participating in this strike regardless of whether the strike is to protest unfair labor practices.”
The collective of unions is alleging numerous ULPs against the university. One such allegation is “direct dealing.”
According to UAW 2865 bargaining representative Kai Yui Samuel Chan, direct dealing refers to the practice of engaging directly with strikers to contain or break a strike, rather than actually responding to the demands of workers.
“While they are stalling at the bargaining table, they are doing various things like changing grading deadlines, asking faculty to do grading work, and trying to basically mitigate the cost if not break the strike instead of responding to it,” Chan said. “They want to find ways to contain or break the strike without actually responding to the demands of our workers.”
Other examples of direct dealing by UC, noted by Chan, include UC offering certain one-time stipends or BayPasses to only some students, which Chan alleged is their attempt to “pacify” some workers at the expense of others.
Chan said that the university’s direct dealings are also happening at the expense of obligating themselves to allocate benefits within a contract.
“With most of these direct dealings — because they are not collectively bargained — there is no obligation on the university side to continue doing them in following years,” Chan said. “Whereas if they are in the contract, (the) university will have an obligation, which if they file late, we can file grievances and they will basically be violating the contract.”
Another allegedly unfair labor practice often cited is the university “unilaterally” changing working conditions.
In many instances, the changes have been to create a new benefit. However, Chan claimed that the issue is that such changes are being applied “unilaterally,” in that the university is only offering benefits — such as transit — to a specific portion of workers, which Chan alleged exemplifies their failure to negotiate with the unions’ demands for equity across all workers.
Chan also cited the university’s withholding of union members’ salary information as an unfair labor practice of theirs, noting that such actions prevent the unions from properly bargaining.
More recent ULPs by the university, according to Chan, include intimidation tactics to prevent people from being on strike, such as using research credits to fail people.
“There are a lot of (ULPs) and the network of these unfair labor practices are the conditions for us to go on and continue to strike,” Chan said.
The unions have made a point to cite that the Public Employees Relations Board, or PERB, has issued complaints against nearly all of the ULPs that they allege against UC.
The process of PERB issuing a complaint is as follows: The unions file to PERB a description of unlawful behavior. Then, UC has a right to respond and draft a defense or response. PERB will then engage in a fact-finding process. If they do find enough facts to suggest that UC has indeed engaged in an unfair labor practice, they will issue a complaint.
“We disagree with their claim and note that to date there has been no finding of wrongdoing by the PERB against the University,” said Ryan King, spokesperson for the University of California Office of the President, in an email.
King added that a PERB complaint is not “a ruling or finding of wrongdoing,” but a “preliminary determination that the allegations on their face are sufficient to warrant closer review.”
According to King, after a PERB complaint is issued, the case then proceeds to an informal setting to see if the matter can be resolved.
If a settlement is still not reached, a formal hearing will then be scheduled with an administrative law judge who will take in testimony from relevant witnesses before issuing a proposed decision based on the evidence and arguments presented. Afterwards, PERB will convene hearings on the complaints, according to King.
For UC, many of these hearings are scheduled for early 2023.
“Since PERB has not fully adjudicated any of the UAW’s ULP charges, to date there has been no finding of wrongdoing against the University,” King said in the email.
Chan said he hopes that PERB’s findings will push the university to bargain in good faith, which he believes would imply a fair contact for both academic student employees and student researchers.